The Velvet Underground

“Split Screens”

Alyxandra Vesey (University of Alabama)

In The Velvet Underground’s final stretch, director Todd Haynes and editors Affonso Gonçalves and Adam Kurnitz indulge in one of my least favorite music documentary conventions: the album cover montage. To transition from the band’s turn-of-the-70s burnout, the filmmakers make a collage of their post-VU projects. The sequence is cut to “Ocean,” a meditation on depression’s undertow that the band originally recorded in June 1969. The needle drop is poignant, as “Ocean” was part of a shelved project until Verve released the VU compilation in 1985. It hints at the prolific afterlife of proto-punk legends who continued (or continue, in the case of John Cale and Doug Yule) to make vital music long after the band’s and the film’s truncated timeline.

That hint is frustrating for two reasons. Within its generic context, the album cover montage often scans as time mismanagement. It’s the cinematic equivalent of concluding an essay with “…And then all this other stuff happened (shrug), the end.” It’s also symptomatic of the perfunctory storytelling that stymies the rock doc’s cousin, the music biopic. While this is Haynes’s first music documentary, he has made compelling cinema from queering the biographies of Karen Carpenter, David Bowie, and Bob Dylan. So, it’s disappointing to see him stumble into such clichéd exposition. But the montage also reveals Haynes’s priorities. He is primarily concerned with Lou Reed and John Cale’s frictional partnership and its collision with New York’s underground art scene. Unfortunately, he yadda yaddas everything that happens after the band’s seminal 1967 debut album, The Velvet Underground and Nico. (Guitarist Sterling Morrison left to become a medieval studies scholar. Drummer Moe Tucker held down office jobs and recorded a few albums. Cale’s replacement, Doug Yule, briefly fronted the band after Reed went solo in 1970. Nico made some records too!) It’s telling that the montage climaxes with Reed and Cale’s reunion on Songs for Drella, their posthumous tribute record for Andy Warhol. Drella’s cover portrait, overlaid with their former manager’s ghostly visage, illustrates Haynes’s central question: how did these two men make music in Warhol’s shadow?

This preoccupation raises another question for me: why didn’t Haynes just make a Warhol documentary? The Velvet Underground came about after the New York Public Library acquired Reed’s archives in 2017. Universal Music Group executive David Blackman and Reed’s partner Laurie Anderson commissioned Haynes and his producer Christine Vachon to make a film. While it started as a VU project, Haynes had to contend with the band’s minimal performance footage and Reed’s death. As he explained to The Ringer, he used Warhol as VU’s cinematic parallel. Split screens help him put the band in dialogue with New York’s experimental art worlds and commemorate Warhol’s Chelsea Girls. The first half of The Velvet Underground uses split screens to thrillingly approximate what Jon Pareles describes as the “overload” of the band’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable multimedia performances with Warhol. The split screens are paired with another Warholian flourish, the screen test, to establish Cale and Reed’s backstories and build anticipation for when they finally share the frame. Their honeymoon, telegraphed by the junkyard pop of their 1964 single “The Ostrich” and a folky demo of “Venus in Furs,” is the closest The Velvet Underground comes to matching Velvet Goldmine’s heady romanticism. In Goldmine, Haynes synthesizes Citizen Kane with fanfic to ship David Bowie with Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. Here, Haynes plugs Cale into Reed. But he leans on Warhol’s techniques instead of forging his own cinematic language for desire. He also skirts Reed’s queerness, creating what Alfred Soto ultimately deems a “heteronormative narrative.” Montages and split screen require attentive multisensorial engagement. In The Velvet Underground, these borrowed techniques make the band serve as musical accompaniment for a documentary that struggles to center them as the subject.

Haynes limited interviews to scene participants to simulate VU’s fleeting subterranean career. But with the exception of Reed’s early collaborators – Cale, Tucker, La Monte Young, and superfan Jonathan Richman – Haynes prioritizes perspectives from the film world, including Jonas Mekas, actress Mary Woronov, and film critic Amy Taubin. As Jim DeRogatis observed, Haynes minimizes the contributions of Tom Wilson, who produced The Velvet Underground and Nico along with many groundbreaking 1960s jazz and rock records, and music critics Ellen Willis and Lester Bangs, who were early adopters of the band’s contrarian sub-pop. Of course, Wilson, Willis, and Bangs are all dead. But if Reed’s archives speak, why can’t theirs? In Karen Dalton: In My Own Time, another recent music documentary about an ambivalent 60s New York scenester, filmmakers Richard Peete and Robert Yapkowitz work around their subject’s lack of recorded interviews by weaving Dalton’s diary entries, read by singer-songwriter Angel Olsen, as voiceover narration. Such resourceful formal innovations recontextualize Dalton and I wish that Haynes, who has incorporated documentary techniques into his biopics, brought more of his experimental spirit as a dramatist into his non-fiction work. Weaving in more musical perspectives could have also provided more nuanced engagement with race beyond a nod to Reed’s doo-wop fandom. For example, Wilson was one of the few Black rock producers at that time. Furthermore, as Geeta Dayal argues, Young’s claim that he invented sonic drone erases centuries of “non-Western musical traditions” because “no one is there in the movie to provide a dissenting opinion.”

Dayal also challenges Haynes’s failure to intervene upon Nico’s misperception as a “gauzy, enigmatic chanteuse.” While watching the album montage’s cuts to Nico’s discography, I remembered Susanna Nicchiarelli’s Nico, 1988, a music biopic about her last year as she tried to kick heroin, make music, and reconnect with her son before dying in a bicycle accident the summer before her 50th birthday. Nico, 1988 makes perceptive use of another biopic narrative convention that Haynes employs for The Velvet Underground: narrowing its focus on a short but transformative period in its subject’s life. By examining Nico’s final days, Nicchiarelli and actress Trine Dyrholm magnify overlooked biographical details like her traumatic childhood in Nazi Germany, her challenges as a single mother, her liberation from beauty and fame, her writing process, her interactions with her band, and her hunger. The film’s ends with an observational long shot of Nico embarking on her last bike ride, lingers on the open gate after she leaves the frame, and cuts to black before providing a postface that describes her tragic fate but preserves her dignity by refusing to recreate it. Such unexpected but thoughtful decisions allow viewers to see and hear the film’s subject with new eyes and ears. It left me wondering what histories Haynes could have told if he let himself queer the legend.

“Rock History and Avant Garde Wallpaper”

Juan Carlos Kase (University of North Carolina, Wilmington)

Long attracted to the fugitive subcultures of rock ‘n’ roll, Todd Haynes has enthusiastically explored the mythologies of pop music celebrity for years. From the stop-motion Barbie-doll phantasmagoria of Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987) to the frustrated glam wet dream of Velvet Goldmine (1998) to the playfully schizophrenic portrait of Bob Dylan, rock’s most enigmatic centaur in I’m Not There (2007), he has brazenly showcased the intoxicating ways in which rock history and mythology have together synthesized glorious, even impossible zones of the fantastic. With The Velvet Underground, that trajectory comes to an abrupt halt. The Velvet Underground is, well, pretty damn conventional. Sure, Todd Haynes has great taste: he picks savage live tracks from the Velvets at their most cacophonous; he gives us access to spirited raconteurs like John Cale, whose vernacular Welsh poesy dominates the film, as well as Jonathan Richman, and Mary Woronov instead of the stuffed shirt experts who tend to inhabit most industrial documentary; he populates the visual field of the film with singular, transgressive experiments from avant-garde filmmakers including Kenneth Anger, Bruce Conner, Shirley Clarke, and Andy Warhol. Nevertheless, Haynes has made a documentary about The Velvet Underground, the most legendary avant-pop experimentalists, that feels like the spawn of Ken Burns’ hipper cousin.

The film’s opening prelude entices with a shard of poetic chaos: over a black frame we read “music fathoms the sky . . . baudelaire” while Cale’s amplified viola explodes into a shrill sonic paroxysm. Within about thirty seconds the havoc has subsided, and postwar America arrives in montage form, with requisite stock footage of Walter Cronkite, manicured suburban neighborhoods, and Campbell soup cans. Before long, Haynes snaps the film into customary position and The Velvet Underground begins its tour through the linear chronology of the band’s evolution, from Lou Reed’s hopped-up teen dance curio, “The Ostrich,” to the Velvets’ fabled final residency at Max’s Kansas City in 1970. In the process, the filmmaker gives welcome attention to the group’s key avant-garde collaborators and inspirations, including La Monte Young, Tony Conrad, and Henry Flynt. All in all, the film is heavy on the formative years and seems to get briefer in its attention to each subsequent album, which, though typical of the rock doc’s conventions, works just fine. Throughout, Haynes showcases the living members of the band onscreen, including Cale and Moe Tucker, and brings archival sound recordings of interviews with Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, Doug Yule, and others, to fill in details of the oral history. He supplements the band’s voices with a rich, Warholian rogues’ gallery of knowing commentators and first-person witnesses, including Jonas Mekas, John Waters, Amy Taubin, and Danny Fields. In a pleasant inversion of the standard dominance of interview over music in most documentaries, Haynes minimizes the visual presence of the talking heads and lets the songs play out for longer than is typical of the conventional rock doc medley soundtrack.

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With split-screen mania, Haynes fills the frame, often dividing it into halves, thirds, and quadrants, in a rapid-fire montage of American experimental film’s greatest hits. We see flashes of Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls (1966), Harry Smith’s Heaven and Earth Magic (1962), Jordan Belson’s Samadhi (1967), and Stan Brakhage’s Dog Star Man (1964). Initially, this fragmented summation of avant-garde visual culture is novel in its annihilation of authorship: it gives us a sense of experimental cinema’s texture at a remove from the names of great masters and the titles of their storied masterworks. Here we experience slivers of these films like we encounter Classical Greek pottery or AM radio of the 1970s: as a cultural array severed from any named individuals.

But Haynes’ curatorial flippancy leads to frightful reductions and distortions. Consider what he has done with Warhol’s films: once uninterrupted experiments in extended duration, muted sound, performative awkwardness, and arbitrary camera movements, Haynes has chopped them up and reframed them to match the contemporary commercial aesthetic of industrial documentary. In this film Haynes domesticates the feral weirdness of Warhol’s cinema and it does not feel right. Historical responsibility is simply not a consideration here. Another perverse example of reckless curation is the way in which he presents a few tiny snippets of Brakhage’s 78-minute epic Dog Star Man and arranges them into a four-part split-screen array while the listener luxuriates in “Pale Blue Eyes,” ignoring the fact that Brakhage’s film was a single-screen silent work, conceived entirely apart from the Dionysian excesses of the 1960s. This kind of irreverent appropriation, of course, is Haynes’ right as an artist; he is free to play with and reinvent history, as he did in his rock biopics. But in the context of documentary cinema, the stakes are different. Haynes has reduced the history of American avant-garde film – much of which was not temporally or culturally proximate to his subjects – to decorative filigree, to moving wallpaper that fills visual space while we listen to the Velvets.

Though not as ghastly as Peter Jackson’s digital deepfakeThe Beatles: Get Back (2021), or as ungainly as Martin Scorsese’s docu-fiction curio Rolling Thunder Revue (2019), Haynes’ film leaves me wondering why these Hollywood hotshots get to construct rock history. They are not even documentarians, really. These rock docs are side gigs for all three, vanity projects that Oscar-winners and Oscar-nominees make when not working with A-listers on big budget sets. All of this has something to do with the market value of commercial fiction filmmakers as brands, whether they occupy the regal Lord of the Rings status of CGI fetishist Jackson or the more modest arthouse celebrity of Carol’s director. Ultimately, Haynes’s film is fun and engaging in all the ways a fan might want: The Velvet Underground describes a glamorous, queer, mercurial version of the Velvets and their world, which is gratifying for admirers of the band. But in its engagement with non-fiction cinema – both as an art form and a historical practice – Haynes’ film is neither ambitious nor responsible.

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